Hitting a Nerve

The missing puzzle piece


Mrs. Stevens died last week. She was 87.

That’s nothing new. The nature of medicine is such that you’ll see patients pass on.

But Mrs. Stevens bothers me, because even to the end I’m not sure I ever had an answer.

Dr. Allan M. Block, a neurologist is Scottsdale, Ariz.

Dr. Allan M. Block

Her case began with somewhat nebulous, but clearly neurological, symptoms. An initial workup was normal, as was the secondary one.

The third stage of increasingly esoteric tests turned up some clues as to what was going wrong, even as she continued to dwindle. I could at least start working on a differential, even if none of it was good.

I met with her and her husband, and they wanted an answer, good or bad.

I pulled some strings at a local tertiary subspecialty center and got her in. They agreed with my suspicions, though also couldn’t find something definitive. They even repeated the tests, and came to the same conclusions – narrowed down to a few things, but no smoking gun.

Throughout all of this Mrs. Stevens kept spiraling down. After a few hospital admissions and even a biopsy of an abdominal mass we thought would give us the answer, we still didn’t solve the puzzle.

At some point she and her husband grew tired of looking and accepted that it wouldn’t change anything. Her internist called hospice in. They kept her comfortable for her last few weeks.

They didn’t want an autopsy, so the secret stayed with her.

Looking back, I agree with their decision to stop the workup. When looking further won’t change anything, why bother?

But, as a doctor, it’s frustrating. There’s a degree of intellectual curiosity that drives us. We want answers. We want to solve puzzles.

And sometimes we never get that final piece. Even if it’s the right decision for the patient, at the end of the day it’s still an unsolved crime to us. A reminder that, in this day of genetic analysis and high-resolution scanning, we still don’t know it all, or have all the answers.

We probably never will.

Dr. Block has a solo neurology practice in Scottsdale, Ariz.

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